Henry VIII has been evaluated numerous times by historians over the centuries since his death. He is a figure in history that has the power to awe those who study him. One reason for the wonderment that surrounds the studies of Henry VIII was his ever-changing philosophies. He was a king that appreciated knowledge and was a devout Catholic but that all changed in the 1520s, and from that time on, his viewpoints about religion and his status in England began to resemble that of a crazed man. Events in Henry’s life helped shape the type of king he would change into. Early in his reign he defended the Catholic Church with his Seven Sacraments and not too many years later, he was Supreme Head of the English Church. Henry’s life choices changed him and all of England.
To understand Henry as a person, one must understand the times into which Henry was born. He was born on June 28, 1491 at Greenwich Palace, to Henry VII, King of England, and his queen, Elizabeth of York. The War of the Roses was a recent memory and the Tudor dynasty was still yet to be firmly established. There is little known about his childhood and this was probably due to the fact that he was the second son. In the late 15th century, the oldest son was the one destined to take the throne once the king passed away. For this reason, Henry’s older brother Arthur was the son that was documented most as a child.[i] Henry was intended for a life in the church. Because of this, Henry had a great knowledge of the canon and could often quote appropriate scriptures when occasions arose.[ii]
In October of 1501, Henry’s older brother, Arthur, married Catherine of Aragon of Spain. The marriage was not the success that Henry VII hoped for because in April of 1502 Arthur died. For a brief moment, Henry VII considered taking Catherine as his wife (his wife, Elizabeth of York, had recently died), and this was better than returning the dowry that had come to England with Catherine. To solve the matter Henry VII arranged a marriage between his son, Henry, the new Prince of Wales, and Catherine. Some in the English Church did not look upon the proposed marriage favorably, and it was suggested that Henry VII request a bull of dispensation from Julius II (the current pope) to allow the Prince of Wales to marry his deceased brother’s wife.[iii] Julius II granted the dispensation in 1503 but the marriage between Henry and Catherine did not happen until 1509, after Henry VII had died and Henry VIII was of appropriate age.[iv]
With his secluded youth behind him, Henry loved his pastimes. He kept close friends, such as Charles Brandon, and was always active. The new king of England was hailed as a divine prince, one who had mastered sports, arts, language, music, canon law, and who was most learned. He was a new kind of prince and was much admired by the greats during his time. Men, such as Erasmus, praised him and were certain that Henry was bringing in a new, and improved, age to England.[v] With his extracurricular activities filling his time, he did not have much interest in the day-to-day operations of England. This job eventually fell on his chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey.
On January 1, 1511, a baby was born to Henry and Catherine. There had been a previous pregnancy but it resulted in a stillborn daughter. This time, the child was alive, and it was a son. The boy was named Henry, after his father, and was given the title the Prince of Wales. Henry and Catherine celebrated in lavish style, but, as was common during this time in history, the boy died early at seven weeks. Henry and Catherine were both devastated.[vi] Catherine became pregnant two additional times following this but both pregnancies resulted in deceased sons. Henry and Catherine began to lose hope that they would ever have living children, and worst of all, no stable heir for the throne of England. Finally, in February of 1516, Catherine gave birth to their fifth child, a healthy, screaming, active, baby girl. Henry and Catherine named her Mary. The birth of their daughter renewed their spirits. Henry believed that if they could have a healthy daughter, there was still hope for a healthy son. Catherine became pregnant again in 1518, and London began to buzz about the prospect of finally having a male heir. Unfortunately, a daughter was born and died within a week. This would be Catherine’s last pregnancy. Out of six pregnancies, only a daughter survived, and unfortunately, she was not the depiction of a secure heir that Henry preferred.[vii]
Henry’s attention was directed toward the religious upheaval that was happening around Europe. Martin Luther had posted his Ninety-Five Theses condemning the actions of the Catholic Church in 1517. Luther was a Catholic but believed that the church was full of debauchery.[viii] By 1519, Luther’s works were known all over Europe and places like Oxford were beginning to flow with his followers. The next year Luther wrote The Babylonian Captivity of the Christian Faith, which was an attack on the Catholic Church and it’s holy sacraments. Henry was enraged that Luther was gaining momentum. Believing that he was a faithful follower and servant of God, Henry crafted his defense of the Church. When Henry finished his Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (The Defense of the Seven Sacraments), he sent several copies to the papacy. He also wrote the pope saying, “Nothing is more the duty of a Christian prince than how to preserve the Christian religion against his enemies.”[ix] In his Defense, Henry wrote, “He [Luther] so undervalues Customs, Doctrine, Manners, Laws, Decrees and Faith of the church…that he almost denies there is any such thing as a church, except perhaps such a one as himself makes up of two or three heretics, of whom himself is chief.”[x] Partially in reward for Henry’s defense of the papacy, the pope rewarded Henry with a new title, “The Defender of the Faith”. It should be noted that the title was not only given for Henry’s work on his Defense. Henry and Wolsey had been working with the papacy for several years trying to gain a title for Henry that would match the holy titles that had been bestowed on other Christian princes in Europe.[xi]
When Luther read Henry’s published Defense, he initially did not believe that Henry was the authentic author nor did he believe that it was a satisfactory argument. Luther responded to the Defense in his Martinus Lutherus contra Henricum Regem Angliœ,
The sum of the matter is: the whole of Henry’s book is based on the words of
men, and on the use of centuries, and on no words of God, nor on any use of the
Spirit. On the contrary, the sum of my argument is that whereas the words of
men, and the use of centuries, can be tolerated and endorsed, provided they do
not conflict with the sacred Scriptures, nevertheless they do not make articles of
faith, nor any necessary observances.[xii]
Luther was challenging Henry’s Defense and Henry realized that Luther’s teachings were a threat, not only to the papacy, but also to him as a king. Luther and Henry exchanged writings and they both strongly believed the other was misguided. In 1525, Luther and Henry were still exchanging letters, and Luther apologized to Henry for doubting his authorship of his Defense. Henry was very quick to reassure Luther that he did not need, or desire, his apology.
The year 1525 also saw another big event, the completion of William Tyndale’s New Testament translation. Henry, upon writing to the German princes in 1523 to request the restraint of Luther, was quoted as saying, “It is a good thing for the Scriptures to be read in all languages.”[xiii] This was not a common belief among the Catholic Church and Henry did not accept his own words as true. He was writing what he thought the German princes wanted to hear in order to get them to heed to his request. Unfortunately for Henry, his tactics did not work and Luther continued to be safe in Germany.
The Catholic Church looked down upon commoners reading Scripture. The hierarchy of the church believed that “special knowledge” was required to understand the Scriptures. When Wyclif’s Bible was published in the early fifteenth century, the church reacted by forbidding any version of the Bible to be written without episcopal approval. Tyndale did not have the approval of the bishops to translate his version. He had once told a friend of his intentions to translate the Bible and his friend believed that it was better “to be without God’s law, than without the pope’s.” Tyndale answered, “If God spare me life, ere many years I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scripture than you do.”[xiv] Tyndale spent six months in London translating his Bible from Hebrew to English and then traveled to Germany to finish the first portion of his work under the influence of Luther. When the king tried to hush the excitement surrounding Tyndale’s translation by having him arrested, Tyndale escaped and managed to finish his translation of the Old Testament. Eventually, Tyndale was captured and burned at the stake as a heretic in 1536. His last words were, “Lord, ope the King of England’s eyes”.[xv]
During Henry’s reign he had many foes. The first foe he found was Ferdinand of Spain, his father-in-law. On many occasions Ferdinand did not keep his promises to help the young Henry in battle, and as a result, this caused Henry much humiliation during a time that he was trying to establish his power. Two successive French kings also caused Henry much grief. They were Louis XII and, his son, Francis I. As was common during the early sixteenth century, Henry signed multiple peace treaties with both men. Both sides would pledge their unyielding affection for the other and promise loyalty, at least until a better offer came from a more influential adversary.
Henry’s biggest rival during his lifetime was Charles V of Spain. Early in 1519, the Holy Roman Emperor (Maximilian I) died. His grandson, Charles V, and the French king, Francis I, started competing for the title of Holy Roman Emperor. Henry was more willing to support Charles while Wolsey preferred Francis. Both candidates received assurances that they had England’s support by way of money, letters, and false promises. In the beginning of the campaign for Emperor, Henry was not interested in earning the title for himself. Suddenly Henry decided to add his name to the campaign list. It is not known if Henry was serious about his attempt to gain this new title. The possibility exists that he was trying to split the votes between Charles and Francis. But adding the title of Holy Roman Emperor to Henry’s designation would have created a tremendous amount of power and prestige for the king. Henry had his ambassador, Richard Pace, visit the electors and campaign for him. All of Pace’s work was to no avail and in June of the same year, Charles was elected Emperor. Charles was now the most powerful prince in Europe, both King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor.[xvi]
[i] Jack Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), 3.
[ii] Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: The Reformation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), 523.
[iii] David Loades, Henry VIII:Court, Church, and Conflict (Richmond Surrey: The National Archives, 2007), 22.
[iv] Durant, 535-536.
[v] Loades, 18-38.
[vi] Scarisbrick, 27.
[vii] Carolly Erickson, Great Harry (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980), 155.
[viii] Arthur D. Innes, England Under the Tudors (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1950), 85.
[ix] Neelak Serawlook Tjernagel, Henry VIII and the Lutherans (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1965), 3-7.
[x] Henry VIII, Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1908), Kindle edition.
[xi] Scarisbrick, 115-116.
[xii] “Martinus Lutherus contra Henricum Regem Angliœ,” Project Canterbury, accessed May 10, 2012, http://anglicanhistory.org/lutherania/against_henry.html.
[xiii] Tjernagel, 10-33.
[xiv] Durant, 533.
[xv] Ibid., 533.
[xvi] Scarisbrick, 98-105.
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